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IN BRIEF

Nonfiction

November 20, 1994|DICK RORABACK

KILLING CUSTER by James Welch with Paul Stekler (W.W. Norton: $25; 274 pp.) What does it say about American lore when virtually everyone agrees that there were "no survivors" of the Battle of the Little Bighorn? (There were hundreds of survivors; they were called Sioux and Cheyenne.) Why do hundreds of books, scores of movies and a national monument celebrate--let's face it--a loser? Why were (are?) the victors scorned as "bloodthirsty savages" while no less than Walt Whitman, in a "glad, triumphal sonnet," lauds the vanquished: "The loftiest of life upheld by death"? Why is Custer's Last Stand remembered 120 years later, while the Massacre on the Marias River, an entire encampment wiped out to the last child ("They are nits, and will become lice"), is remembered by nobody--except the Blackfeet? "If you switch the focus," writes James Welch, "the story becomes infinitely richer."

Welch switches the focus all right. With a vengeance. Half Indian, acclaimed novelist ("Fools Crow," etc.), Welch takes sides--and why not? Plain and simple, the 1876 battle was part of the U.S. plot to eradicate the Indians ("God's righteous decree," said Horace Greeley). It was a depression year, and robber baron Jay Cooke needed settlers to make his railroad profitable. More succinctly, in the words of Chief Black Elk, "They came to kill our mothers and fathers and us, and it was our country." Welch's account of the battle--and what receded it, and what followed--is rousing and rending unaccountably marred by long passages on the difficulties he and co-author Paul Stekler had in making a Little Bighorn documentary. Just skip those parts. His rendering of his people--neither noble nor feral, just human beings--is provocative but balanced. The aftermath is shameful. Black Elk: "There is no center any longer; the sacred tree is dead."

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